College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

Orchards of the Future — Think Automation

In orchards and vineyards of the future, one sensor will measure the amount of photosynthetic energy being absorbed by tree and vine canopies at any time of day. Still others will sense moisture levels from leaves and soil. A variable-rate irrigation system can then supply just the right amount of water and fertilizer, depending on what a particular plant needs. And all the information can be collected, processed and seen by growers in real time through their mobile devices so they can make informed decisions quickly.

Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems is working with University of California at Davis and others on a three-year, $2.6 million U.S. Department of Agriculture project to bring this future to the present.

WSU doctoral student Jingjin Zhang (left) and engineering technician Patrick Scharf measure photosynthetic energy absorption in sweet cherry trees at the WSU Roza Research Orchard near Prosser. The measurements are taken on a mobile platform that is part of a three-year project to develop a precision agriculture system for specialty crop growers. Photo by Qin Zhang/WSU.
WSU doctoral student Jingjin Zhang (left) and engineering technician Patrick Scharf measure photosynthetic energy absorption in sweet cherry trees at the WSU Roza Research Orchard near Prosser. The measurements are taken on a mobile platform that is part of a three-year project to develop a precision agriculture system for specialty crop growers. Photo by Qin Zhang/WSU.

“This research is aimed at developing and integrating soil- and plant-based sensors to monitor the state and condition of plant canopies for optimizing management within orchards and vineyards,” said Qin Zhang, WSU CPAAS director. “The importance of this research to Washington’s wine grape and tree fruit industries is that the profitability of the industry is strongly dependent on the production of high-quality fruit, which is associated with a proper balance of canopy and crop load.”

Project researchers are developing a farm-based, precision management system to help specialty crop growers improve quality and increase production efficiency while reducing their environmental footprint. The project has seven objectives, of which WSU is participating in five:

  • Mobile platform for measuring canopy architecture and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) absorption. PAR is necessary for photosynthesis and plant growth. In orchards, researchers have studied the relationship between the amount of this energy canopies absorb and increasing productivity. The information gathered from the platform—equipped with a GPS receiver, radar and infrared thermometers—can be used to determine the effect of canopy management on yield, quality and more.

WSU researchers took the PAR absorption study a step further when they evaluated sweet cherry trees trained to new, two-dimensional fruiting wall architectures at the WSU Roza Research Orchard near Prosser. They found that trees trained to a Y trellis absorbed more light over the course of a day than trees trained to an upright fruiting offshoot (UFO) system.

“It could provide the fundamental information needed to improve both fruit yield and quality in a UFO system by carefully planning the pruning of trees,” Zhang said.

  • Sensor suite for detecting plant and soil water status. Sensors for infrared temperature, PAR, wind speed, relative humidity and ambient air temperature make up the suite. An in-ground probe measures soil moisture, electrical conductivity, organic matter and compaction.

WSU is also investigating modifications to the suite to monitor water stress of grapevines. Additions include infrared thermography to detect temperature distribution patterns of sunlit and shaded canopies, as well as a handheld light bar and multispectral camera to measure PAR absorption under different water stress levels.

  • Decision support system. WSU has created a prototype software analysis tool so participating growers and university researchers can assimilate and rapidly act on the information they receive from sensing devices in the field. The tool can import and integrate a wide variety of data in different formats, including time, location, temperatures and other readings; process the information and show results specific to a grower’s farming operation; and support a range of Internet-connected mobile devices, such as a smart phone or tablet.

“This is a very challenging task,” Zhang said. “We’re giving growers the basic algorithm, and they can choose the interface. Some want a paper copy of the data analysis; others want it on their iPhone. Some want results in color; others in black and white. Some want to see something in 3-D; others in 2-D. It’s difficult to please everybody. The important thing is to make the information available visually in real time.”

  • Variable-rate irrigation system. A network of wireless sensors and controllers manages irrigation so a tree or group of trees receives only the amount of water and fertilizer needed. WSU is evaluating the system on grapes in a test plot at the WSU Roza Research Orchard. Part of the evaluation will include studying the effects on berry size and phenolic content when grapes are not irrigated early in the growing season.
  • Social impact study. WSU has developed a 22-question survey to assess what growers think of the sensors and technologies that are part of the project. Questions address canopy and irrigation management in orchards and vineyards, the two major needs stakeholders have identified.

According to UC Davis, the long-term goal of the project is to establish the foundation for precise management of specialty crops at levels unattainable with satellite-based and aerial sensing. For details about its full scope, visit the project website.

“We envision the creation of an information-based, decision-making infrastructure that will drive Washington’s tree fruit and wine grape industries into this new precision agriculture revolution, an era of precision crop management,” Zhang said.

University of Arizona, New Mexico State University, Veris Technologies Inc., Oregon State University, AgInformatics LLC and Trimble Navigation Ltd. are also project investigators. Other participating agencies and producers include the Almond Board of California, California Walnut Board, Christensen Farms LLC, Constellation Wines, Olsen Brothers Ranches Inc., USDA and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

WSU CPAAS, established in 1999 as the WSU Center for Precision Agricultural Systems, promotes creative research and extension activities for more effective growing, harvesting and processing of specialty crops through mechanization and automation. For more information, visit the WSU CPAAS website.

–Nella Letizia

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CAHNRS is more than agriculture. With 24 majors, 19 minors, and 27 graduate level programs, we are one of the largest, most diverse colleges at WSU. CAHNRS Cougs are making a difference in the wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities, improving ecological and economic systems, and advancing agricultural sciences.



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Welcome back, CAHNRS Cougs, to another exciting year at WSU. CAHNRS has experienced quite a bit of change and growth recently, but we remain committed to serving the needs of our students, faculty, and staff.

As you may have heard, our dean, Ron Mittelhammer, has been appointed interim co-provost for the university. For the duration of his appointment, I have been named acting dean for the college.

I appreciate the support I have received from around the college, and am working with the associate deans, faculty, and staff to continue CAHNRS on its positive trajectory.

Part of that trajectory is a return of the Forestry major in WSU’s School of the Environment. As a college, we’re excited to help students get started in careers as foresters, environmental consultants, reforestation specialists, and wildfire management specialists.

Those last two are obviously of timely importance, as we are experiencing the worst wildfires in our state’s history blazing across our state and region. We hope that future wildfires will cause less devastation to people and the environment because of the work our Forestry majors will do.

We would also like to welcome the WSU Children’s Center to CAHNRS. The Center, which provides care for the children of WSU students, staff, and faculty, is now part of the CAHNRS Department of Human Development. The idea for this came from President Floyd, and we’re happy to carry out his vision.

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We in CAHNRS are here to help you grow, learn, and succeed in this changing world. We’re glad to have you with us as we continue to push forward as leaders in research, education, and world-class academics.

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Kimberlee Kidwell
Acting Dean, College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences


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Mission Statement

The goal of the Washington State University CAHNRS Office of Research is to promote research beneficial to the citizens of Washington. The Office of Research recognizes its unique land-grant research mission to the people of Washington and their increasing global connections. The CAHNRS Office of Research provides leadership in discovering and applying knowledge through high-quality research that contributes to a safe and abundant food, fiber, and energy supply while enhancing the sustainability of agricultural and natural resource systems.

Featured Research

Winter Wheat May 2014 by McFarland

‘A quiet crisis’: The rise of acidic soil in Washington

Gary Wegner first noticed the problem in 1991, when a field on his family’s farm west of Spokane produced one-fourth the usual amount of wheat. Lab tests revealed a surprising result: the soil had become acidic.

Study: Small railroads important but costly to upgrade

More than half of Washington’s short-line rail miles aren’t up to modern standards, according to a recent study by the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State University Freight Policy Transportation Institute.
A grizzly bear with her cubs at the WSU bear center.

Single hair shows researchers what a bear has been eating

By looking at a single hair, U.S. and Canadian researchers can get a good idea of a grizzly bear’s diet over several months.

Fighting wildfires economically complex, says WSU researcher

Fighting wildfires is expensive. Firefighters must be paid and equipment must be purchased and transported to fires. Operations and maintenance cost money. According to a WSU researcher, the incentives to lower those costs are out of balance, and the researchers are working to understand the sources of the incentive problems.

Research shines light on organic fruit, food safety

The growing organic produce industry may soon have a new way to ensure the safety of fresh fruits. Scientists at Washington State University have shown that ultraviolet C (UVC) light is effective against foodborne pathogens on the surface of certain fruits.

Organic agriculture more profitable to farmers

A comprehensive study finds organic agriculture is more profitable for farmers than conventional agriculture. The results show that there’s room for organic agriculture to expand and, with its environmental benefits, to contribute a larger share in feeding the world sustainably.

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MudflatImpact: Burrowing Shrimp and Invasive Eelgrass

Shellfish production in Washington is a $60 million a year industry. Several major pests plague this industry, resulting in major crop loss. One of the most important pests is subterranean burrowing shrimp. These shrimp bioturbate (stir up) the sediment, causing the oysters to sink and die. For the past 60 years the industry has been using the insecticide Sevin to control this pest, but due to lawsuits its use was phased out in 2012. Without alternative control for shrimp, tens of millions of dollars in annual crop revenue will be lost and the industry will quickly lose its economic viability in southwestern Washington.

PoultryFarmImpact: The National Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center

The Environmental Protection Agency has identified agriculture as the leading contributor of pollutants to the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. These reports often do not separate animal agriculture from other agricultural enterprises, but they do note that pathogens, nutrients, and oxygen-depleting substances associated with manure are three of the top five pollutants. Some emerging issues related to manure management include: endocrine disruptors (hormones), pharmaceuticals (antimicrobials), and antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Adopting farm practices that minimize the environmental impact is important for food safety.

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Biosolids are the solids produced during municipal wastewater treatment. Composts are made from a variety of organic materials, including both urban and agriculture sources such as yard trimmings, biosolids, storm debris, food waste or manure, and food processing residues. While these materials have traditionally been viewed as waste, they can play a valuable role as soil amendments in urban and agricultural settings. They provide nutrients and organic matter and they sequester carbon, thereby conserving resources, restoring soils, and combating climate change.

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The College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS) at Washington State University is an expansive and diverse college that includes 16 academic units, 4 research and extension centers distributed across the state, 13 subject matter centers, and 39 county and one tribal extension offices.

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Important Dates and Deadlines

August 24, 2015

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September 10, 2015

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